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India Walks a Thin Line to Beauty

by Aruna Radhakrishna

After browsing through the Indian magazine, Gentleman, with its special tribute to Indian women, I was absolutely shocked, disgusted and annoyed. My father had just returned from India and brought me this magazine. Since I was a journalism major he thought I'd like to see writing from different parts of the world. It was the pictures that I saw, however, that caught my attention; that made me cringe.

The advertisements were filled with skinny, light-skinned exploited women. This is something I am used to seeing in the U.S., but not back home in India where I was born. Although I have lived in the U.S. most of my life, I have been back to India many times and have never seen women who looked like the women in this magazine. I wondered what had happened since the last time I was there.

For those who are unfamiliar with Indian culture, let me explain. start with 'skinny': it has never been considered attractive to be thin in India. Ever since I was a child, my parents have been shoving food down my throat, hoping I would gain weight. They forced my sister and I to eat three hearty meals, swallow raw eggs, and eat milkshakes before going to bed.

Every time I came home from college, the first question asked by any Indian adult, especially when grandparents called, was: "Did you gain some weight yet?"

I am built small, but by no means am I anorexic or malnourished. The only diet I've ever been on was to gain weight; and probably influenced by my parents' ideal of feminine beauty. Being thin hasn't been considered a positive attribute in India. It is seen as unhealthy and unattractive.

An Indian friend who recently came to the U.S. told me, "When I came here people said I was thin. I was insulted. Only later did I realize that it was a compliment." So I wonder, why are Indian models turning skinny? From my point of view, this is due to Western influence.

This influence can also be seen in the light skin color of these so-called-attractive Indian women. My friend's mother was describing me to her husband, speaking in Gujrati. The word she used meant "pretty for a dark person". WHY - I ask - is LIGHT SKIN attractive, in a country filled with brown people, of all shades? Why is there a brand of makeup called ‘Fair and Lovely'?

Perhaps it's due to the brainwashing that occurred during the British colonization of India. After all, India only gained its independence in 1947. Think of the generations of people still alive affected by colonialism. Why would anyone want to be dark, have dark children or marry someone dark, when it means being treated badly, as it was in those days? After all, even in the U.S., those who look more like the white majority have their advantages.

In the September '93 issue of Cosmopolitan, there is a story about famous African-American women in the U.S., mostly models. It describes the discrimination they have faced, and (physical) changes they have undergone to be successful.

Basically, the more white they look, the more successful their careers will be (except for Jackie Joyner Kersee). This is all too obvious. None of the women have very dark skin. The majority have straightened their hair, added extensions, and most have some characteristics resembling Anglo features; specifically their noses.

Why are people in other countries obsessed with looking like Westerners? Why are Japanese people having cosmetic surgery on their eyelids, to make their eyes look bigger? Why do Indian parents tell their children to stay out of the sun, so they will not get darker? Is this a survival technique for the future, or an unconscious brainwashing technique passed on from oppressors?

Whatever the reason, it really saddens me. I don't want to see Indian society turn into North American society; where people are constantly dieting, while getting fatter and more unhealthy. The November 15, '96 issue of India Today documents this "beauty craze".

I do not want to see adolescent girls in India becoming insecure, wearing lots of makeup and suffering from anorexia and bulimia, all in hopes of being the adored six foot tall, 115 pound model gracing the pages of magazines, television and movies.

But it's already starting to happen. A Laotian friend of mine loves to watch Indian movies. The other day she said, "I was watching a new Hindi film. They have new actresses in them. They are skinny, not fat like before."